Minorities Underrepresented on Liver Transplant Waiting Lists

 Will Pass

March 09, 2021

Non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic patients are underrepresented on many liver transplant waiting lists, whereas non-Hispanic White patients are often overrepresented, according to data from 109 centers.

While racial disparities "greatly diminished" after placement on a waiting list, which suggests recent progress in the field, pre–wait-listing disparities may be more challenging to overcome, reported lead author Curtis Warren, MPH, CPH, of the University of Florida, Gainesville, and colleagues.

"In 2020, the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network implemented a new allocation system for liver transplantation based on concentric circles of geographic proximity rather than somewhat arbitrarily delineated Donor Service Areas (DSAs)," the investigators wrote in Journal of the American College of Surgeons. "Although this was a step toward improving and equalizing access to lifesaving organs for those on the liver transplant waitlist, the listing process determining which patients will be considered for transplantation has continued to be a significant hurdle."

The process is "rife with impediments to equal access to listing," according to Dr. Warren and colleagues; getting on a waiting list can be affected by factors such as inequitable access to primary care, lack of private health insurance, and subjective selection by transplant centers.

To better characterize these impediments, the investigators gathered center-specific data from the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients and the U.S. Census Bureau. The final dataset included 30,353 patients from treated at 109 transplant centers, each of which performed more than 250 transplants between January 2013 and December 2018. The investigators compared waiting list data for each center with demographics from its DSA. Primary variables included race/ethnicity, education level, poverty, and insurance coverage.

Multiple logistic regression analysis was used to compare expected waiting list demographics with observed waiting list demographics with the aid of observed/expected ratios for each race/ethnicity. Univariate and multivariate analyses were used to identify significant predictors, including covariates such as age at listing, distance traveled to transplant center, and center type.

On an adjusted basis, the observed/expected ratios showed that non-Hispanic Black patients were underrepresented on waiting lists at 88 out of 109 centers (81%) and Hispanic patients were underrepresented at 68 centers (62%). In contrast, non-Hispanic White patients were overrepresented on waiting lists at 65 centers (58%). Non-Hispanic White patients were underrepresented on waiting lists at 49 centers, or 45%. Minority underrepresentation was further supported by mean MELD (Model for End-Stage Liver Disease) scores, which were significantly higher among non-Hispanic Black patients (20.2) and Hispanic patients (19.4), compared with non-Hispanic White patients (18.7) (P < .0001 for all) at the time of wait-listing.

Based on the multivariate model, underrepresentation among Black patients was most common in areas with a higher proportion of Black individuals in the population, longer travel distances to transplant centers, and a higher rate of private insurance among transplant recipients. For Hispanic patients, rates of private insurance alone predicted underrepresentation.

Once patients were listed, however, these disparities faded. Non-Hispanic Black patients accounted for 9.8% of all transplants across all hospitals, compared with 7.9% of wait-listed individuals (P < .0001). At approximately two out of three hospitals (65%), the transplanted percentage of Black patients exceeded the wait-listed percentage (P = .002).

"Data from this study show that the waitlists at many transplant centers in the United States underrepresent minority populations, compared with what would be expected based on their service areas," the investigators concluded. "Future work will need to be devoted to increasing awareness of these trends to promote equitable access to listing for liver transplantation."

Looking at Social Determinants of Health

According to Lauren D. Nephew, MD, MSc, MAE, of Indiana University, Indianapolis, "The question of access to care is particularly important at this juncture as we examine the inequities that COVID-19 exposed in access to care for racial minorities, and as we prepare for potential changes to health insurance coverage with the new administration."

Dr. Nephew noted that the reported racial disparities stem from social determinants of health, such as proximity to transplant centers and type of insurance coverage.

"Another striking finding was that the disparity in wait-listing non-Hispanic Black patients increased with the percentage of non-Hispanic Black patients living in the area, further highlighting barriers in access to care in majority Black neighborhoods," she said. "Inequities such as these are unacceptable, given our mandate to distribute organs in a fair and equitable fashion, and they require prospective studies for further examination."

Identifying Discrimination

Lanla Conteh, MD, MPH, of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus, described how these inequities are magnified through bias in patient selection.

"Oftentimes two very similar patients may present with the same medical profile and social circumstances; however, one is turned down," she said. "Often the patient turned down is the non-Hispanic Black patient while the non-Hispanic White patient is given a pass."

Dr. Conteh suggested that the first step in fixing this bias is recognizing that it is a problem and calling it by its proper name.

"As transplant centers, in order to address and change these significant disparities, we must first be willing to acknowledge that they do exist," she said. "Only then can we move to the next step of developing awareness and methods to actively combat what we should label as systemic discrimination in medicine. Transplantation is a lifesaving treatment for many patients with decompensated liver disease or liver cancer. Ensuring equitable access for all patients and populations is of paramount importance."

The study was supported by a Health Resources and Services Administration contract, as well as grants from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The investigators and interviewees reported no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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